Saturday, September 30, 2023

...And None Of Them Were Wearing Eyepatches!

The Mohole Mystery
Hugh Walters

Sooner or later, it had to be faced. Chris Godfrey spent four whole books exploring the Moon; but he whizzed through Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Saturn in only five volumes. (He's apparently sharing Mars with some other astronauts; but their expeditions are distinctly Off Stage.) Is the series going to come to a preemptive close after Neptune, Pluto and The One With the Rude Name? Or are there other places where our heroes can confront Certain Death? Walters speculated about interstellar travel when introducing us to the idea of cryogenics; but in the end he shies away from it. He probably wouldn't have done alien civilisations; and crashing into a barren moon on Alpha Centuri wouldn't have been much more fun than crashing into one on Pluto.

So: this time around our heroes take a detour. A journey to the Centre of the Earth. Well; maybe not the centre, but forty miles down. Pretty darn deep, at any rate. It appears that between the earth's crust and the earth's mantel is something called the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, which it is impossible to drill through. So, naturally, the Boffins are trying really hard to drill through it, and they've found a weak spot in, er, Dudley; just near the Castle Zoo, as a matter of fact. (Tony comes from Birmingham, but no-one thinks it polite to say so.) Initial probes have discovered an absolutely ginormous cave, along with traces of nasty alien microbes. So the only option is to send some explorers down and find out what is going on. Sir George also claims that if they don't explore the cave, everyone will have to stop mining coal and drilling for oil and civilisation as we now know it will come to an end: but no-one seems particularly bothered by this.

So: we have an exciting variation on the archetypal Astronaut Goes Up / Astronaut Comes Down plot-line. Astronaut goes down. Astronaut's descent capsule lands awkwardly. Astronaut has no way of getting home and comes to terms with Certain Death. Astronaut's friends mount rescue attempt. Astronauts come up. 

It feels a little slight: the suspicion arises that Walters is engaged in what can only be described as padding. But overall it works better than it should. The comic relief and side plots manage to be a reasonable amount of fun; and the focus on the three heroes left on the surface lends a certain desperation to the plight of the one trapped all alone in the underworld. 

Once or twice, Walters seems to be attempting what I can only describe as humour. The capsule in which our heroes are going to make their descent is manufactured by Rubery Owen, a company who normally make aircraft and racing cars. Our author permits himself to be wryly amused by the formality and self-importance of British Industry.

A magnificent commissionaire, who was obviously also an archduke at the very least, emerged through swing glass doors to bid them welcome...The noble person who condescended to act as a commissionaire, personally conducted the director and his party to the Chairman's private office.

I think that it is probably a mistake to do this sort of thing in a children's book: I am pretty sure the irony was lost on me. If a grown up tells you that some West Midlands car firms are staffed by exiled Russian nobility, at ten years old you are inclined to assume that this is a true and obvious fact.

Wing Commander Gatreux -- "old Whiskers" -- who hasn't been heard from since the Mars adventure, makes a reappearance. His whole purpose in life is to provide comic relief, and he knows it. As soon as he arrives, our heroes start to act like naughty school children, putting an "apple pie bed" in his quarters and laughing at the colour of his PJs. 

He also has a very unreliable car:

It was one of the former officer's main occupations in life to wage a constant battle to keep the Red Peril in running order. Nevertheless it had made the journey from Buckinghamshire to the Midlands without any really vital parts dropping off.

Not, I concede, the funniest joke ever made: but it bespeaks a lighter tone than the previous volumes have had. Silly Whiskers and Stuffy Sir George Benson are a passable double act which adds some much needed light and shade to the roster of faceless boffins. 

And, slightly more surprisingly, the Chairman of RO comes across as, if not quite a character, then at least as an endearing caricature. He starts out as only one degree removed from Reginald Perrin's C.J. He  humourlessly insists that if the capsule is scheduled to be completed by 0320 then it can be tested at 0321. He boasts to the astronauts that he sometimes travels as much as half a million miles in a single year. But when our heroes are facing (SPOILER ALERT) Certain Death, he puts on some overalls and gets his own hands dirty on the factory floor. He even refuses to go to hospital until the rescue project is completed, despite having been involved in a serious industrial accident.

"But you must have an X-ray" the doctor declared firmly. "You may have a broken shoulder and crushed ribs."

"I don't care if I've been decapitated" the industrialist spluttered "I'm stopping on this job. Don't you realise there's a life at stake?"

The shaft that has been drilled from Dudley Zoo to the mysterious cave is very narrow; and there is no time to make it wider; so a single astronaut ("subterrainaut") is going to have to squeeze into a very small capsule and be dropped forty miles into the cavern below. This is one reason why the mission is going to be undertaken by astronauts and not, say pot-holers: they have experience with free-fall. There is quite a lot of not entirely implausible technical detail about how the capsule works:when the altimeter tells the pilot that the capsule is close to the cave bottom, he can activate rockets (using his knees) to slow his descent; and the boffins on the surface will shine an infrared beam down the hole which will guide him home. But only a small astronaut can squeeze into the tiny capsule; and an inordinate amount of time is spent watching our heroes desperately hoping that they will be chosen for this mission. Morrey, being an American, has "broad shouldered" printed on his character sheet and is ruled out from the beginning: Tony and Chris are both a little on the large side. Like Doc Smiths Lensemen, they seem to subsist entirely on a diet of bacon and eggs, steak, and apple pie. But Serge, being Russian, is small enough to squeeze into the tin can. 

This leads to a sub-plot which almost amounts to a shaggy dog story. The aforementioned Whiskers, being ex-RAF is wheeled in to train Serge for the mission. The others join the gym sessions in solidarity and to show they are still a team. Whiskers makes a big deal out of being too old for this sort of thing; and affects to be surprised that there are only four sets of gym equipment, forcing him to sit and watch while the young men do their keep fit sessions. Naturally, Chris sees right through this ruse and finds spare exercise bikes and rowing machines which Whiskers has hidden, shaming the old man to do PE lessons with the lads. But of course, this precisely what Whiskers intended: he knows that working together to catch out the old man will have wonderful effect on the boys' morale. 

Serge is shot down the shaft; and instantly meets with one of those Certain Death Scenarios. The absent-minded boffins didn't realise that all the the debris from their drilling will be piled up on the cave floor. When the capsule lands on the mountain of rubble it topples onto its side, making a return to the surface impossible. (And forty miles of solid rock means he can't radio for help. A shame they didn't have any telepathic twins on hand.) Serge immediately flips into the standard heroic suicidal ideation. 

He would have to compose himself and await his end as calmly as possible.

He would explore the underworld until his oxygen gave out. Then he would die with his courage intact.

He would only have to cut off his oxygen supply and he's soon fade out for ever. Or he would remove his helmet and allow his lungs to be scorched by the searing heat. Valiant Serge shrugged off those unworthy thoughts. It was his duty, instilled in him by years of training, to remain alive to the bitter end...

If he had to die, at least he'd die cleanly...

Serge expects to die of starvation, or for his oxygen to run out; but weirdly and rather arbitrarily, Walters introduces an additional Peril. The Cave is inhabited by a strange life-form which may be a faceless limbless animal but which may also be an unusually mobile mushroom. A swarm of hollow eggs which are capable of rolling up the hill; and which, for no clear reason, are converging on our hero...and which periodically burst and shower him with potentially deadly alien dust. There is something uncanny -- at times very slightly Lovecraftian -- about this idea. But at the same time it feels exactly like the sort of thing you'd get in 1960s BBC TV show. You can just picture the black and white astronaut on the studio floor while BBC special effect eggs on strings move slowly towards him, just before the cliffhanger music kicks in.

No-one seems to have the slightest curiosity about this new life-form: Serge's immediate reaction is to throw stones at it. 

In the end, it is engineering and PE which saves the day. The heroic mechanics at RO jerry-rig a capsule with two compartments; and, crucially, legs, so that it can land safely on the uneven cave floor. And Chris realises that because he joined in Whiskers' gym sessions he has lost nearly a stone and will now fit in the tiny capsule. (I told you there would be a punch line.) So he makes another descent, and drags Serge back to the surface, in the nick of time. The borehole is sealed. No-one tells Chris that he isn't allowed to glance backwards, and everyone seems to have forgotten about the imminent threat to Civilisation. 

Overall, the book is surprisingly effective, even though it is obvious that Walters is sometimes scraping the barrel to find space-filling strategies. ("At Hendon, Serge joined the motorway and was bowling along nicely until he came to the Aylesbury road fork...") But there is something genuinely nightmarish about Serge's predicament; dropped forty miles down into a dark cave he has to chance of getting out of; isloated from your friends; trying to face The End bravely as weird alien animals creep inexorably towards you.

NOTE: Whiskers' got married in Blast Off at Woomera (1957); his children were away at school in Expedition Venus and are now at university, which is consistent with this book being set in 1976 or 77. Spaceship To Saturn, with its 18 month round trip and 6 months of preparation and a longer than usual internal timeline. Earth mainly gave up burning coal for fuel in "the late 60s and early 70s" and the Cold War -- weapons in general -- are now part of "the bad old days". However, the boys bet "half a crown" on a game of snooker and Tony manages to win "eleven shillings" off Whiskers. 

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

The Bringer of Old Age

Spaceship to Saturn
Hugh Walters

In 1775, a Dutch American named Rip Van Winkle had slightly too much to drink. He woke up, twenty years later, to find that he had missed the War of Independence. Captain America fell into the Arctic Ocean at the height of World War II and wasn't defrosted until the swinging sixties. His namesake, Anthony "Buck" Rogers fared rather worse, falling into a gas induced coma in 1929 and emerging in the eponymous twenty fifth century.

The idea of suspended animation has been around since forever: but the idea of deliberately freezing people seems only to have come into vogue in the 1960s. In '64, Arthur C Clarke was confidently assuring TV audiences that in the near future Science! would be able to freeze sick people while they were still alive, and keep them on ice until the cure was found for whatever ailed them. In the same year, another science fiction writer, one Robert Ettinger, popularised the idea of cryonics -- freezing corpses in the sure and certain hope of a future resurrection. His book, the Prospect of Immortality, had been self-published in 1962, so Clarke may well have been aware of it. It was commercially published and circulated by the Book of the Month Club in 1964 -- the same year Stan Lee defrosted Captain America.

By the Summer of Love, the idea of cryogenic freezing was distinctly in the atmosphere. EC Tubb published the first of his infinitely prolonged Dumerest series in 1967: it envisages a galactic empire in which impoverished travellers can book "cold passage" in the holds of starships. (It was a major source for the Traveller role-playing game.) In that same year, Doctor Who discovered his enemies, the Cybermen, in frozen tombs on the planet Telos.  Spaceship crews are seen emerging from cold storage at the ends of long space voyages in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968); and Phillip K Dick uses cryogenics as a means of life-extension in his iconic Ubik in 1969.

It may not be a coincidence that heavy smoking Walter Elias Disney died of lung cancer in December 1966. A few months later (early 1967) a tabloid journalist created the urban myth that Uncle Walt's body had been placed in cold storage and that in 1975, the animator would be reanimated. (He was, in fact, prosaically cremated a few days after his passing.) 1967 was also the year the Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park ride opened: the myth states that Disney's time-capsule is buried beneath it. The spot is presumably marked by an X. 

And it was in that same year Hugh Walters published this tenth volume of his juvenile SF series. On this occasion, he was riding the zeitgeist. He might even have been slightly in advance of it.


The central Peril in Mission to Mercury was the cold. The side of the planet facing away from the sun is absolute zero, which is very nearly as cold as it is possible to be. (Does that work? Does a planet which is very close to the sun but permanently facing the other way?) As everyone starts to get quite chilly Tony speculates about whether extreme cold could ever have a practical use.

As he looked again at each of his companions, Tony wondered how long it would be before human beings were deliberately frozen for long voyages. When the break out of the solar system came and Man decided to cross the fantastic distances to the stars, it would be necessary to put the crew into cold storage. Even with the terrific speeds obtainable from the ion motor, the journey to the nearest star would take several years. Scientists believed that by freezing the crew they could save food, oxygen, and -- above all -- boredom. The crew would be automatically de-frosted as the voyage neared its end. To them it would seem that the journey had been a very short one, for they would be unaware of the lapse of time during their period of suspended animation.

The present volume begins with our heroes walking through London's Hyde Park in January (by my count 1973 -- six years in the future.)

"Gosh, it's cold" exclaimed Tony to his three companions.

Walters doesn't really do subtlety. Serge says that it's not as cold as it would be in Russia, and Chris says that it's not as cold as it was on Mercury. When they arrive at dear old Uncle George's offices, he tells them that their next jaunt will be Saturn-wards and that the journey will take some nine months each way. (It only took them twenty days to get to Jupiter, which is only a couple of hundred million miles closer, but who is keeping score?) 

This is obviously going to be quite a problem: how is our author expected to fill a year and a half's worth of pages with character-free astronauts killing time with each other. Very ironically, the solution will freeze them.

I wonder if Walters was consciously foreshadowing Spaceship to Saturn when he allowed Tony to muse about deep-frozen astronauts in the previous volume? Better writers than him strip mine previous books when looking for inspiration for their new one.

Rather endearingly, our heroes have stopped using Junior School level science books to learn about their destinations: nowadays they go to the London Planetarium and have it explained by one of the kindly curators there. The Planetarium is right next to Madam Tussauds: Walters misses a trick by not allowing the boys to drop in and see if Chris's wax effigy is standing in the space occupied by Yuri Gagarin in the real world.

But, as ever, Walters is almost totally uninterested in the planet from an astronomical or scientific point of view. It exists purely as a source of Peril. Space is magical: planets are uninteresting. The journey is everything: the arrival practically nothing. 

Our heroes must be getting pretty frustrated at this point in the careers. While other crews are routinely travelling to Mars and Venus all Chris and his friends ever seem to do is get fired at far-away objects and entirely fail to land on them. 

We are told that there are now a thousand people living permanently on the moon (they live underground and grow algae in tanks) but we get no sense of what an extraterrestrial city looks like. We are told (sensibly) that rockets are now launched from the moon (as opposed to Cape Kennedy or Woomera) because of the lower gravity; but we don't find out what the Saturn probe looks like. You would think that Cool Hardware would be the kind of thing a little boy would want to hear about, but literally all we get is:

The Commander took the astronauts on a moving roadway along a tunnel leading to the launching hall. In the centre Saturn I stood proudly awaiting the finishing touches, its tall, silver shape towering towards the cavern roof.

The launch passes without comment (the crew are asleep) and space is signalled using Walters' standard cliches. ("The black velvet space was sprinkled with countless points of light.... ") Like many a bad poet, he thinks drifting into cod archaisms can be substituted for description: the rings of Saturn consist of "myriads of points of light" and the rings themselves are made up of "myriad points of light". And unlike other visitors to the planetarium, the astronauts have seen the stars "and myriads more" from space.

Once again, the main source of peril for the boys is the force of gravity. The one thing that everybody knows about Saturn is that it has Rings. The Boffins are pretty sure that the Rings are fragments of exploded moons -- myriads and myriads of them, I shouldn't wonder -- or else several myriads of particles of space dust that have been drawn into the planet's orbit. But what doesn't occur to the Boffins until it is too late is that all those myriads of space debris are going to exert a gravitational pull of their own. We are told they have a mass almost as great as the actual planet; so the ship is pulled off course towards Certain Death. 

This week it is young Tony the engineer's turn to say I'm-going-out-and-I-may-be-gone-some-time. At the point at which the ship's course has to be corrected, he's on a space walk, trying to fix a hole made by a stray meteor. If they Chris the retro rockets, Tony will die. If he doesn't, everyone will die. And Tony has self-sacrificingly and nobly and recklessly pretended that his radio has broken, so he can't be ordered back on board. ("Two can play at that game, Horatio" he thinks, which is such a good joke that Walters has to explain it to us readers.) Walters uses the usual morbid imagery to drive home how much Certain Death we are dealing with:

If Chris fired the rocket he would be condemning Tony to death instantly...

She shrunk from the task of conveying Tony's death warrant...

It seemed to be writing Tony's death warrant....

The solution is actually pretty dramatic. Chris allows the spaceship to fall towards the planet, giving Tony time, just barely, to get back inside; and then he fires the retro thrusters and does some precision manoeuvring to navigate the ship through Cassini's Devision (the narrow space between the rings) and onward home to earth. 

Which ought to feel somewhere between James Kirk and James Bigglesworth: proper seat of your pants adventure stuff. It needs to be an ILM special effects sequence, or at least a Chris Achilleos cover. But in fact we are pretty much just told what the plan is, that it's hugely risky; but that in the end, it works okay.

In this respect, Walters is probably quite in step with the Serious Grown Up Writers of his day. Your Asimovs and your Blishes are full of mind-boggling concepts like galaxy wide empires and wandering hobo cities...but they never quite get around to telling you what one of their great big ideas would look or feel or smell like.


Spaceship to Saturn is almost entirely procedural, and all the better for it. The original Blast of at Woomera is essentially a novel about a school boy being trained for a space mission; and as the characters become more and more experienced and the missions more and more routine, it's been harder and harder to make pre-launch preparations seem particularly interesting. This time around, Walters spends a full hundred and thirty pages -- two third of the book -- introducing readers to the idea of cryogenic suspended animation, or, as he charmingly calls it hypothermia -- a word which makes me think of old ladies who can't afford to pay their central heating bills. 

I'd seen the Planet of the Apes TV show and read comic book adaptations of the movie: possibly I'd even seen Ark in Space. So the idea wasn't exactly new to me. But Walters takes it very slowly -- both giving some thought to how it would work; and playing around speculatively with what could be done with it. The cryonic immortalists tend to think that merely freezing a dead person is sufficient -- if you can stop a body decaying, it will be revivable at some point further down the timeline. Walters spots the problems with this and comes up with some solutions. The subject has what is described as "anti-freeze" injected into his body -- otherwise his bodily fluids would freeze solid. He has a small stent fixed into his arm, so that they can pump in just enough oxygen to stop his brain cells dying. A tiny little pacemaker is introduced into his artery, so that the blood carries on circulating even though the heart has been switched off. 

Are you convinced? I certainly was.

Walters is fascinated by the whole idea of "hypothermia". What would it feel like? He pushes the idea that being frozen is a kind of non-time -- weeks or months simply edited out of your life. The first time Chris is put under, he thinks the experiment has been cancelled. Tony is intrigued by the idea that repeated periods of deep freeze could result in a child being "older" than its father. "And a man of twenty one, if he were put to sleep for forty four years, would have his old age pension when he awoke." It would be terrible to wake up and find that your relatives were all old or dead but fascinating to witness all the scientific advances that had been made in the intervening period. The idea of interstellar travel keeps being raised. Would a spaceship be forgotten during a journey of centuries? No: because there would probably be statues and monuments to the departed astronauts; and because take off and landing would be automated by then. But the returning astronauts might be themselves museum specimens by the time they return. These are all ideas that whole science fiction stories could, and have, been based on. (The idea of monuments is specifically raised in the opening minutes of Planet of the Apes.) But it was heady stuff if you are ten years old and coming across it for nearly the first time.

Rather neatly, the plot device from the last book is combined with the plot device from this one. The Boffins detect an unexpected meteor shower between earth and Saturn, and very nearly call the whole thing off. The crew can't make course corrections while they are in deep freeze, and the time lag means the boffins can't do it by remote control.

GOOD NEWS: We established last year that telepathy is instantaneous, and Gail and Gill are happy to lend the service to UNEXA again.

BAD NEWS: The twin on the space ship will still have to be frozen, and frozen telepaths just transmit a kind of mental static.

GOOD NEWS: This mental static is affected by external stimuli, even when the telepath is asleep.

SOLUTION: Freeze both girls; hook them up to EEG monitors. Apply a slight physical -- a tiny pin prick, not a slap round the face --  and see the needle on Girl B's EEG reader jump. Given an afternoon's work, the Boffins can sort out a system where the ships remote sensor reading; and Mission Controls course collections can be translated into systems of pin pricks, and voila! instant faster-than-light communication.

We sometimes complained that Star Trek's only female officer was not-much-more than a radio operator: here the only female characters have been reduced to the status of the actual radio set. But it's a weirdly logical solution to a genuine narrative problem, and the idea of an astronaut in cold storage with a big set of electrodes attached to their helmet has a certain Golden Age charm. For the electrodes to work, the telepaths have to have a special chemical goo rubbed into their scalps -- which leads to endless, tedious  running jokes about girls, shampoo and hairdressers.

But despite the set up, hypothermia is only a narrative facilitator: nothing actually comes of it in the story. The ship does indeed encounter meteors and the Boffins are indeed able to change its direction via telepathic remote control. The only Peril kicks in when Chris, er, nearly wipes out his entire crew by forgetting to inject them with anti-freeze at the beginning of the return voyage. He wants to admit the cock-up when he gets home and resign, but his friends characteristically say that they are all to blame and should face the music together. Chris reciprocally refrains from tittle-tattling about Tony's lying and disobeying orders when he switched his helmet off.


Hopefully, by now everyone has forgotten Planet Narnia. You will recall that Michael Ward theorised at vast length that the seven volumes of C.S Lewis's Narnia series are each themed around one of the seven planets of medieval astrology, and that Lewis hid this fact, and indeed laid a false trail, because he wanted to make a theological point about secrecy. Lewis didn't believe in astrology but he did see the value of the planetary archetypes; so the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is meant to evoke, through its "atmosphere" the concept of Joviality and the Silver Chair a Lunar, and indeed Lunatic ambience. Opinion is divided on the validity of the book. I think it is bollocks, but everyone else (including a lot of eminent Lewisians) thinks it's a work of seminal genius.

Now: I find it hard to believe that Hugh Walters knew anything about medieval astrology. He doesn't show that much interest in the romantic or imaginative associations of the planets. He does a whole book about Mars without alluding to the God of War once. (He doesn't even mention the man in the moon, lovers under a blue moon in June, or the possibility of finding green cheese there.) But he probably studied a smattering of Classics; and would certainly have been familiar with Holst's Planets. You can bet that Chris Godfrey sang I Vow To Thee My Country at his posh school. Your CD of the Planets Suite almost certainly has a NASA photo of Saturn or Jupiter on the cover; but the music is specifically evoking the astrological associations. Mars is the bringer of War, with all those drums; the ethereal choral music is meant to evoke Neptune, not as a sea-god, but a mystic.

We noticed last time around that Walters' Mission to Mercury was very much concerned with the problem of sending messages from home when you are several light-minutes away from earth; and that mythologically Mercury is the messenger of the gods. I was happy to write this off as coincidence: after all, the whole point of astrology is that any symbol can be convincingly applied to a wide variety of different circumstances. But turning to the latest volume, I am not so sure. 

The very minor character on whom the hypothermia process is first tested, is amused because he is now technically younger than his twin brother. Gail and Gil are concerned that if they go on the mission, they will miss their twenty first birthdays; and are adamant that they are both frozen for the exact same length of time as each other; other wise they won't be twins any more. There is speculation about using cryogenics as a system of time-travel. And when the idea of hypothermia goes public, a millionaire offers a fortune to use it to infinitely prolong his own life. His scheme is to be frozen, and then woken up for one day a century.

Our heroes are getting older: Chris can hardly be less than 33, and we've been told that 40 is the compulsory retirement age of astronauts. It would be a stretch to suggest that in this book, what is dragging our heroes to certain death is not myriads and myriads of tiny moonlets, but Time itself -- their own mortality, represented  by the planet Cronos. But it is hard not to notice that a book so much preoccupied with the passage of time, with birthdays, and in particular with the cessation of the aging process is named after Holst's Bringer of Old Age.

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Winged Messenger

Mission to Mercury
by Hugh Walters

Mission to Mercury is essentially the same book as Journey to Jupiter. The heroes travel to an alien planet; they meet with a terrible disaster and certain death; and they return to earth again.
But this time, they encounter a strange new life-form -- more terrifying than Venusian goo or psychic Martian ghosts. More uncanny even than East End teddy boys.

They are going have to share their adventure with....a girl.

Actually, there was a "girl" in the last book. She was a PhD student at Jodrell Bank, who happened to be on duty when one of the boys' distress messages came through. Quite a canny little interlude on Mr Walters part, actually: take us away from the space-ship mid-crisis, and introduce a completely new character who we'll never hear from again, simply so we can see what urgent distress messages are like from the boffin's point of view. Neatly gets the point across that picking ups transmissions from a gadzillion miles away is harder than just clicking Receive on a walkie talkie, and it also generates a bit of suspense. And Janet is not a stereotype or anything. She keeps some knitting in her hold-all to pass the time when on a routine watch. (As opposed to, say, for example, some text-books.) Her boss, Sir William Evans is definitely a bloke. I bet he doesn't refer to the male interns as "Boy" and "Young Man". Or maybe he does. But at least there is a female speaking part when there didn't have to be. Contemporary reviewers had criticised Walters for not having any female characters, so this might have been a kind of apology.

So, anyway: Mercury. Closest planet to the Sun. Very hot on one side. Very cold on the other. And a really, really, really long way away.

A few years down the line, Douglas Adams would tell us that space is "really big" and we would all think he was terribly funny and terribly wise. But I do wonder, re-reading these books, whether the extreme bigness of space is one of the things which made the idea of astronauts so compelling. Why, after all, are stories about people spending days and days in cramped spaces en route to the Moon so much more exciting that stories about people stuck in similar tin cans several hundred leagues under the sea?

Not that stories about submarines aren't also cool. There is an intrinsic thrill in big cardboard boxes, dens and bunk-beds. The bottom of the ocean is as good a place as any to hide from homework and PE and tidying your bedroom. But there is a unique tingling-in-the-tummy sub-sexual thrill in the idea of being all alone in the vast immensity of dark blackness. A bit like that sensation when you come back to school in the evening for chess club and it is dark and empty and silent and all the lights are out and there is no-one there except maybe the caretaker.

Joseph Campbell said that the Immensity of Space was signifier for the Unconscious or the Final Incomprehensible Mystery or The Force. And Hugh Walters occasionally seems to have something like this in mind.

"For her own part she was still excited by the vision of the heavens that had been revealed to her. Now she was beginning to feel some of that mysterious attraction which starts and planets have for adventurers in space. Often she'd heard tell that once a person had journeyed across the threshold of space there was not turning back. The magic of the vast, empty silence acted as magic, drawing back all who ventured into those strange regions. No astronaut ever retired willingly. They were all hopeless addicted to the fascination, the excitement, the wonder of this new environment."

Space as a symbol of God would fit in well with his Church of England pieties and the idea that space travel as a form of human sacrifice.

Being in space is the exciting thing. Alien planets are pretty much all just cold lumps of rock.

But what with one thing and another and space being the size it is, communication with the home-world is a bit of a problem. In Journey to Jupiter we were told that it took thirteen minutes for a radio transmission to base, and thirteen minutes for base to reply. Moderate kudos to the author for making that difficulty the main plot engine of this eighth volume. I imagine it is coincidence that a story so concerned with the problems of sending and receiving messages is named after, er, the messenger of the gods. There was nothing very jovial in the last one, and the next one won't be any more deathly that usual. I suppose it is possible that the lack of any clear astrological symbolism is evidence that Walters disguised it in order to make a point about secrecy.

Sending messages to earth from space is difficult. The further away you are the longer it takes. Mercury is very far away indeed. And the solution proposed in these very-scientific and not-at-all pulpy stories is (drum-roll)...


The Boffins introduce Chris and his pals to Gail and Gill, a pair of twins who can infallibly communicate by thought-transference. He has quite a lot of fun demonstrating how the power works, and everyone is just skeptical enough to convince us that it really does. I do think that Walters attention to trivial detail is what made the stories so engrossing. Gail goes to the bottom of the garden with Serge and Morrey and Chris asks Gill to ask Gail to ask them what was in the green box they took to Jupiter, (something she couldn't possibly know) and Gail telepaths the answer back to Gill. (It was a dentistry kit; a cute detail that stuck in my mind when I first read it.) There was less sci-fi around in 1965, so maybe he thought school kids would need the idea of telepathy spelled out to them.

I, of course, took one look and said "Oh, just like in the Tomorrow People." I may even have created a mash-up in my little head.

Walters does attempt any scientific rationale. Radio waves take time to travel through space because they are limited to the speed of light; but telepathy is instantaneous. Which suggests that thought waves are not subject to special relativity. Or that they work by magic which would be prima facie evidence of an immortal soul...

But as a plot device, it's relatively neat.

What the crew find it hard to get their head rounds is not so much thought transference, but the existence of females. This is so over-done it's comical. Everyone pointedly spends a chapter wondering what the "two miracle men" will be like and hoping that the "new chap isn't a weirdy". The gender-reveal is an end-of-chapter cliffhanger:

"There was a new recruit all right...but it was a girl!"

"A girl! The gasp came from all four astronauts as they stared at their companion to be. A girl she certainly was, and quite a nice one at that..."

Now: there are lots of way this plot-line might have developed. You've introduced a fifth member into a tight-knit group who would happily lay down their lives for each other (if only the others would let them). And, worse the fifth member is one of a pair of twins, with a huge emotional bond to someone outside the group. Does the new member spoil the alls-boys-together space den? Are there new friendships and new jealousies? What about, you know, love? The obvious thing would be for Tony (who is around twenty four years old according to internal chronology) to develop a crush on one of the ladies. But in fact, his attitude is roughly that of Calvin to Suzie. When Gail exhibits some nervousness he thinks "maybe girls are always a bit scared". The twins are nice "even though they are girls".  If only Walters could have remembered that Serge was a Russian long enough for there to be an argument about the greater degree of Women's Liberation in the Soviet Union.

And of course, any practical issue arising from a lady-person spending weeks in a tin can with four persons of the masculine persuasion can't be mentioned at all. There is in fact the barest, tiniest, demurest, almost homeopathic suggestion that the situation has the potential for awkwardness:

"We've, er, rigged up a special compartment for Gail" Mr Gilanders said, a little awkwardly, nodding towards one side of the cabin.

But the head of the space programme immediately shuts the conversation down.

"Just in case you get tired of this lot" Sir George smiled. "At least you can get some privacy whenever you want it."

The actual reason is obviously completely unspeakable.

I recall a scene in one of Willard Price's unreconstructed Adventure books in which the the young hero, Roger, takes a shower on the deck of a sailing ship and is tricked into thinking that a female woman of the opposite sex has come on board, to his acute comic embarrassment. Characters in children's fiction don't necessarily have to be entirely bodiless.

For a brief while, it looks as if there is going to be some characterisation: Tony is cross with Gail for being a girl and Morey is cross with Tony for being cross with Gail and Tony is cross with Morey for taking Gail's side and Chris is cross with them for being cross with each other. And then it turns out that cosmic rays from the sun are affecting their minds and it isn't really their fault at all.

The not entirely un-clever solution is to park the ship on the dark side of Mercury, where they are protected from the Sun's radiation, and sit it out until the sun-spot activity dies down. It is absolutely essential that they launch the ship at precisely the right moment, which would be impossible using time-lagged radio communication with earth: Gail's telepathic presence on the ship saves the day: but her flakiness is a major source of jeopardy. The dark side of Mercury faces away from the sun, so temperatures go right down to absolute zero, which is about as cold as it is possible to get. Everyone shivers and struggles and Gail falls into a coma. No-one actually threatens to kill themselves, but it is touch and go right up to the last moment...

But the main question the story has to answer is -- are boys better than girls? Better at being astronauts, at any rate? And, in fairness, Walters comes down heavy handedly on the correct side of the argument. In Moonbase One, Chris had a last-minute epiphany that Secondary Modern boys from the North who are good with their hands are just as worthwhile as Public School boys with proper brains. Mission to Mercury ends with the sudden insight that he's been unfair to the fair sex. It is even possible that all the "you're doing quite well -- for a girl!" stuff is deliberately overdone. Maybe Walters is trying to provoke his readers into yelling "Of course girls can be spacemen, you silly old duffer!" in Chris and Tony's patronising faces.

But dear oh dear oh dear in order to get to the punch line we have to be subjected to the most agonisingly transparent plot device ever. It infuriated me when I was a kid and it infuriates me now. Gail and Gill are identical twins; Gail is the more identical of the two. When they go on a double date with the boys they even switch ID broaches, just to make the point about how identical they are. (One of my most bestest friends has a twin brother. Whatever Shakespeare might have told you, they aren't that difficult to tell part.)

The plan is that Gill will stay on earth and act as a receiver, while Gail travels with the boys and acts as a transmitter. So Gail, but only Gail, goes through the training regime, gets spun around in centrifuges and locked in isolation simulators and briefed about how to suck space food out of a space food tube. She copes pretty well with the training, for a girl. Just before take off, there is a near disaster -- Gill is involved in a car accident, breaking her leg. Fortunately, she's deemed well enough to fulfil her part of the mission from her hospital bed, with her leg in plaster, and the mission goes ahead. But Gail find it very difficult to withstand the high g-force blast off, despite all her training. She doesn't understand that she is meant to drink liquids through plastic tubes in zero-g, despite all her training. This surprises Chris a great deal. "Had something happened to her memory?....Why had Gail forgotten this when she'd already drunk from plastic tubes during training?" She falls asleep when an essential telepathic message is on it's way from earth, and Chris is as chivalrous as you'd expect.

"Gosh! What shall we do?" asked Tony.

Chris didn't reply. He was too busy slapping the girl's face.

Gail does haul herself back into consciousness long enough to send the crucial messages to set up the trip home. And the telepathic system of communication is deemed a roaring success. But Chris has to conclude that sending girls into space was a terrible mistake: "Although she seemed to have been well prepared....she has, in fact, lost the physical tone that had been built up. Indeed at I times I have wondered if her pre-flight training hasn't been completely wasted" he writes in the Captain's Log. "It just means you can't prepare and train girls as you can men." he tells Tony.

And then, when they get back to earth, there is a completely unexpected twist. In an entirely surprising and not at all telegraphed development. 

Go on. See if you can guess. 

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Slightly Important Message

 I will not pay money to Elon Musk under any circumstances.

Twitter has been quite a useful way of reaching out to people who don't know me but might be interested in some of the subjects I write about. 

If you think my writing is worthwhile, please consider plugging me on any social media platform or your own website. 

Andrew Rilstone is an interesting blogger who writes about comic books, fantasy and science fiction, theatre, movies, folk music, Christianity and sometimes politics. 

Why not have a look at his blog [] or think about supporting him on Patreon []

I am doing three more essays on the children's sci fi books, and then start thinking about the Key To Time. Unless something else catches my eye...

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Bringer of Jollity

Journey to Jupiter
by Hugh Walters

When we left Chris Godfrey and his chums, a psychotic scientist was threatening the earth with an orbital death ray. The series started out in 1957 as a "realistic" yarn about a boy astronaut; but it seemed to have morphed into a collection of standard-issue space-opera tropes.

This eighth volume (only twelve more to go!) takes the series back to its roots. It's about a group of space-men going into space on a space rocket. Volume nine is going to involve a mission to Mercury. Volume ten will concern a spaceship to Saturn; but this time we are on a journey to Jupiter. Alliterative determinism will require that the Neptune expedition be a marginal failure.

Up to now, the lads have been shot into space for specific reasons -- to investigate possible extraterrestrial artefacts on the Moon; or to counter a terrible grey ooze from Venus -- but this time, they are off on a jaunt to Jupiter because that's the kind of thing chaps like them do.

Where previous volumes have taken us meticulously through the training process, this one cuts right to the chase. Everyone is on their launch couches; the countdown is underway, and the very first line of the book is "Jupiter, here we come!"

Modern screen-writers might call it a "bottle episode": a group of characters stuck in very close proximity, so their personalities can come into sharp focus. But Walters' heroes don't really have personalities. They are just astronauts. Chris is the leader-astronaut. The point of him used to be that he was a young schoolboy, but now he's the boring grown up one. Morrey is the American-astronaut, but Walters no longer remembers to make him say "Gee whiz!" and "Sure!". Serge is the Russian astronaut but he has no discernible Soviet characteristics. Tony is the working-class-good-with-his-hands-chirpy-astronaut. Despite internal chronology placing him in his early twenties, he knows less science than the average eleven year old. But he can whistle really well, which comes in handy when they need to send a message by Morse code.

The four of them are "the closest possible friends". Not only that, but there is also an "an inseparable bond between them". And they are very brave. "Each had given up counting the number of times his life had been saved by one or other of his companions", Walters tells us. And furthermore "Each of them had saved the lives of the others on many occasions". And in case you haven't got the point yet. "Each knew that he would gladly give his own life to save that of a friend."

The book isn't as pious as the previous volumes. But Walters has a very specific moral compass. Heroism always comes down to conscious self-sacrifice. Greater love hath no man, as the fellow said.

Walters is still fairly interested in keeping his internal chronology straight. Morrey mentions that it is eleven or twelve years since he first met Chris. Well: the books have been published annually since 1957, and Morrey first appeared in Operation: Columbus which came out in 1959. There's a six-year story-internal gap between Moonbase One and Expedition Venus (to give Tony a chance to grow up) which places Journey to Jupiter in or about 1971 -- which is indeed eleven or twelve years after 1959.

There is also some suggestion that the author is doing some minimal world-building. Three volumes ago, our heroes discovered the remains of a lost civilisation on Mars. In this volume, a consignment of scientists and archaeologists are on their way to investigate the ruins in more detail. And this is said to be the third expedition: Walters is imagining multiple interplanetary missions each year. The Captain of the Mars mission speaks of a "brotherhood" of astronauts: we are no longer talking about a minuscule number of test-pilots, but a fairly large professional body. The fraternity has an "unwritten law" that "one astronaut should sacrifice all -- even life itself -- to succour another." 

I summarised the plot of volume one (Blast Off At Woomera!) as "Boy goes up in rocket; boy comes down in rocket". Journey to Jupiter establishes a definite formula for the next few books. "Chaps go to to alien planet. Chaps meet with catastrophic disaster. Chaps face certain death. Chaps come back from alien planet."

I don't mean to knock it. Well, I do mean to knock it, but not too hard. Walters is not very good at writing. He can never resist reaching for a cliche. Rockets "raise themselves on deafening tails of fire." Stars look like "countless points of light shining brilliantly against a black velvet backcloth." When our heroes receive a hopeful message from earth it "brings forth peals of laughter" until "tears were coursing down their cheeks." And, of course, people "announce", "muse", "grumble", "laugh" and "point out" things that they could perfectly well have just "said".

He doesn't have much of an imagination. You might think that the point of sending your heroes on a journey to Jupiter is to imagine what Jupiter would look like close up; or else to engage in scientific conjecture about what one might discover if one dived into that stripy atmosphere. But Walters' knowledge of and interest in the planet doesn't extend far beyond the Ladybird Book of the Solar System which the heroes dutifully recite to each other in the opening pages. ("Jupiter takes nearly twelve years to travel round the Sun but it spins round on its axis faster than any other planet.") He seems reluctant to send his heroes into the atmosphere of Jupiter because no-one knows what they would really find there and he doesn't want to be caught making stuff up. No giant floating jelly fish; no sword-wielding skeleton men. The pals end up merely landing on Io. Which turns out to be just like the Moon, only spikier. 

So, the plot amounts to a series of set-backs. And it has to be admitted that what Walters is really genuinely good at putting our heroes in danger and just barely getting them out of it again.

They are now using an Ion Engine, which can exert continuous low level acceleration on the ship and build it it up to very high speeds. The crew haven't been told in advance that this is what is happening, because UNEXA wants to find out what effect near light-speed has on astronauts "without any preconceptions". Chris started out one rung up from being an experimental chimp, and it seems that the boffins still think of the astronauts in those terms. Serge helpfully explains the doppler effect to Tony; but relativity is regarded primarily as an engineering problem. "Someday someone will break through the light barrier, just as many years ago they crashed through the sound barrier." On this trip, they are only going to get up to three million miles per hour, which is still quite fast. As a result, they find that everything on the ship goes blurry because "human eyes were never designed to look at anything travelling at that speed."

"At a rough guess, looking at something across the cabin, it will have moved almost half an inch by the time light from it has reached our eyes."

I only have O level science, but this sounds to me a lot like bollocks: on a level with the idea that if you throw a ball on the plane, it will fly over your head through the back window. The crew have to blindfold themselves to operate the ship, and Chris very nearly makes a joke.

"Think you can call the Cape without looking."

"Do it with my eyes shut!"

But then they run into more serious problems.

Unfortunately the ship does not decelerate as it is supposed to. This means that it will overshoot Jupiter, or else crash into it, quite definitely killing everyone on board. It does not, I am happy to say, turn out that the Boffins on earth forgot to take the gravitational pull of Jupiter into account when they made their calculations. Indeed, it is never made particularly clear what does cause the disaster. 

Fortunately Chris comes up with a brilliant scheme whereby the ship matches orbital velocity with the Jovian Moon Io, and then, when the moon reaches a suitable point in its own orbit, launches themselves back to earth.

Unfortunately Chris spots that even if this scheme works there wouldn't be enough oxygen for the crew to survive the return trip. 

Fortunately, he realises that there would be enough oxygen for three people to survive. So naturally he decides to do his Col. Oates routine again, deliberately marooning himself on Io to give the other three a fighting chance. 

Unfortunately the other three guess what he is doing, and forcibly drag him back onto the rocket, meaning that everyone is quite definitely going to die (again). But at least they will all go together when they go.

Doesn't this go against the code of the brotherhood of astronauts? If space-men have to lay-down their lives for each other, oughtn't other space-men allow them too? And wouldn't there be protocols for this situation? Couldn't they at least have drawn lots, like marooned sailors deciding who is going to be lunch? 

 Initially, Chris is quite cross, but Morrey talks him round:

"Answer me this question. If I'd planned to make you leave me behind, what would you have done?"

Fortunately there is already another spaceship on it's way to Mars (as foreshadowed in the opening chapter) and "Uncle" George is able to persuade the earth-bound boffins to divert the Martian expedition to rescue the Jovian one. So everyone lives to face certain death in the next volume.

Walters does suspense really, really well. I spent the first fifty pages grinning patronisingly at the at the decent-chaps-got-do-what-a-decent-chaps-gotta-do heroics; and the remaining hundred turning the pages fairly quickly because I actually wanted to know what happens next. Sometimes the audience knows the crew are Doomed before the crew does; but sometimes characters know things that they don't vouchsafe to us readers. We are told early on that Chris has made a Terrible Decision; but there are fifty or sixty pages of gathering doom before we find out about the air-situation and his plan to nobly lay down his life. And the final rescue by the Mars ship goes right up to the wire. There's only sixty minutes of oxygen left, and they can't possibly dock the two ships in that time, but the Captain brilliantly realises that the rocket blaster they were going to use to drill holes in the Martian surface could be used as a shuttle to ferry the crew between the two ships. (In a nice bit of continuity, Chris had the idea of using rockets to dig holes a couple of volumes ago.) The astronauts have to sit astride the rocket while it zooms between ships, and  Walters immediately grabs the obvious comparison:

"Then he calmly jumped off it and tethered it to Jupiter 1 just as if it were a horse in a western film."

But fortunately he doesn't milk the metaphor.

"With a cylinder of tapes clasped tightly to him, he jointed Captain Yull on his fiery charger and together they rode across the plains of space..."

I think we could file that last metaphor under "so dreadful it's brilliant", actually.

When Chris first tells his crew that they are quite definitely going to die, everything turns very morbid:

"What would the end be like. If they crashed into the giant planet, it would be swift and merciful. If they shot past an wandered off into space it might be slow and agonizing. There would be a gradual exhaustion of both oxygen and food. One by one they would die. Who would be first and who would be last."

When it looks like the rescue mission is going to fail, the Martian crew think along the same cheerful lines.

"What would their last hours be like when, one after another, they expired through lack of oxygen... The scientist wondered whether, in the same circumstances, they would have had the courage to meet their own end?"

At first the crew are in denial -- obsessing about trivial jobs and engaging in light hearted chit-chat. "It was as if each of the quartet was determined to shut out of his mind for as long as possible the awful thoughts that had come crowding into it." Chris suggests that this isn't healthy, and that if they "accept their fate and discuss it dispassionately" and it indeed "get used to talking about it freely" it would "come to seem natural and lose its terrors." This seems to be relatively good psychology on the author's part, although we could have done with more showing and less telling. I think this how terminally ill patients are encouraged to deal with mortality. Weren't fighter pilots encouraged to assume that they were already dead and enjoy themselves as much as possible in the meantime? There might also be a good message for those of us who are not on doomed spaceships: come to terms with the fact that you are going to die some day and it will be easier to cope with the idea. Chris may be old-fashioned enough to say his prayers; but at no point does he mention Heaven or suggest that his companions ought to make their peace with the Creator.

The big thing, of course, is to not make a fuss. Chris warns them that bad news is on the way "to make sure that they pass their last few days of life in calmness and dignity". They decide to tell the boffins on earth that they have worked out what is going to happen because they know it will be a great relief "if we can let them know we're facing things calmly." So they send a message, reassuring them that "we've talked it over and we've decided to take things calmly." "Uncle" George complements them on the "courage and calmness" with which they've accepted the situation. Later, when Chris decides to sacrifice himself for his crew, his main concern is that they should be "sensible" and that they should "let him make his sacrifice without any painful scenes". Chris's decision, we are told several times was "cold and deliberate": his friends decision to save him was emotional. 

It's admirable that Chris would sacrifice himself to save his crew; but it's also admirable that his crew would save him; even though they are effectively choosing to end their own lives. Suicide seems to be the main way chaps show affection.

Heroes have to be in danger, of course, and they can't always be saving the world from brown streaks. Hugh Walters astronauts are rarely leaping across canyons or sprinting through shark infested waters. But the focus on noble suicide and calmness in the face of death; and questions about who is going to die first and whether it would be better to go out with a bang or suffocate slowly is a heavy trip to lay on a ten-year old.

At risk of dialling the morbidity up to eleven: this book was published in 1965. In August 1964, the British government had hanged two small-time burglars for a stabbing a man during a bungled robbery; the last executions committed in this country. Perhaps "What would be like to know you are going to die and would I be able to face it calmly, sensibly, and without making a scene?" was a question on lot of people's minds.

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities.